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Where comedy’s concerned, ‘Million Dollar Arm’ strikes out

Lake Bell, left, and Jon Hamm star in a scene from “Million Dollar Arm.”
Lake Bell, left, and Jon Hamm star in a scene from “Million Dollar Arm.”

Jon Hamm plays the straight man to a trio of young Indian actors and Oscar-winning curmudgeon Alan Arkin in “Million Dollar Arm,” a comically thin “true story” of a sports agent trying to turn Indian cricket bowlers into Major League Baseball pitchers.

J.B. Bernstein (Hamm) is just another shark in the sea of L.A. sports agents, better at keeping up appearances than attracting or hanging on to talent. But he may have to give up his swank house, his Porsche, his office and his partner (Aasif Mandvi) if he can’t throw a Hail Mary pass that will save them all.

Channel surfing one night, he has a brain storm. Those guys who hurl cricket balls at the wicket in India look just enough like pitchers that maybe they can be taught America’s national pastime.

J.B. pitches a billionaire sponsor on the idea of cracking the Indian market – holding tryouts all over India, televising it as an “India’s Got Talent” show – only for baseball. All he needs is one or two prospects, one “Million Dollar Arm,” and with a bit of coaching, maybe he can get baseball’s first Indian star signed to a major league team.

So J.B. drags a retired, cranky scout (Arkin) and a radar gun to India, and they both sweat and steam and learn how things work – or don’t work – in the chaotic capitalism there.

A cricket bowler must keep his arm straight, unbent. That’s why they sprint as they throw the ball, to achieve velocity. It’s a totally different motion from pitching a baseball.

That’s why Arkin brings exactly what you’d expect to the grizzled Ray. Ray dozes through this dubious hunt. He doesn’t even open his eyes at the various regional tryouts.

“I can HEAR it.”

Hear what? The thump of ball into mitt. Ray is the skeptic who needs to be convinced, finally, by a few live arms, that the whole enterprise isn’t a fool’s errand.

“You know what they call that?” he growls, at the sound of something over 80, 85 miles per hour. “Juice!”

Director Craig Gillespie (“Lars and the Real Girl”) goes out of his way not to offend in the Indian scenes, courting the Indian market the way J.B. envisions baseball reaching out to the subcontinent. But comedy is meant to offend, so that’s a problem. And once three Indian lads come home to live with J.B. and train with a college coach (Bill Paxton), the strain of not being patronizing shows.

Suraj Sharma and Madhur Mittal play the best prospects, and a funny, diminutive actor named Pitobash plays Amit, brought along as translator. The culture clash in India gives way to the real fish-out-of-water stories as the lads gawk at empty American opulence, from J.B.’s sports car to his luxurious home to the sweet, gorgeous med student (Lake Bell) renting his guest cottage.

As in “Jerry Maguire,” the callous, eyes-on-the-dollar-prize agent has to learn responsibility and compassion (from the med student), to understand that “this game is supposed to be fun.”

Hamm plays J.B. too buttoned down to make him interesting. Even when things go badly, the guy keeps it together – admirable in a human being or agent, bad for comedy. Arkin is barely in the film. And the Indian guys are never more than cute borderline caricatures.

Dawdling along as it does, “Million Dollar Arm” rarely shows us the “juice,” a baseball comedy that is as tentative as a base on balls.